When my son was little he’d occasionally push the boundaries of politeness with an abrasive comment or overbearing question. Most of the time my response was a fairly even-handed, “Would you like to try that again?” My intent was to point out the unacceptable behavior without shaming him while also giving him the opportunity to do it right in real time.

As adults in the professional world, we don’t usually have the option to so obviously guide those with whom we work. A direct correction can have negative consequences for everyone, ignoring the behavior won’t fix it, and snapping back just multiplies the transgression. Consider the strategies below to keep your environment in the positive zone.

Repeat and Reflect

Imagine working hard to complete a report for your team. You present it at the meeting and a co-worker nullifies your efforts with a dismissive comment. Perhaps he calls you out as a being a sycophant for using your boss’s favorite colors. No matter what you say, a direct response isn’t going to help you. Try repeating the statement and adding a reflection. It might sound like, “Hmm, you think I used red and yellow because they’re Cari’s favorite colors. Interesting.” You haven’t granted any credence to his comment and you’ve maintained an even keel by acknowledging the comment. He didn’t get a payoff and that’s a win for you.

Provide Another Option

Given the same situation you can simply provide another possibility. You might try, “Hmm, did I use red and yellow because they are Cari’s favorite colors or was it in honor of my college team?” You’ve lightened the mood, deflected the remark, and moved on. Keeping the meeting in a more positive space will allow for more creativity and efficiency.

Call it Out

Be careful when directly calling out rude behavior in a professional setting. While you absolutely can say, “That’s a bit aggressive,” you run the risk of getting into a conflict that serves as little more than a negative distraction. You might be better served to let it slide if the comment or behavior isn’t material to your work. If, however, you see a co-worker being rude or dismissive to someone else, calling it out may be just the solution. Advocating for one another helps increase rapport and oftentimes, when rude behavior is noted by someone other than the target, it can result in changes. A simple phrase such as, “That’s a bit harsh,” can help an over-amped colleague recognize their misstep and self-correct, especially when it’s not coming from the target of the behavior.

You have a significant amount of power to change the course of a conversation or the energy in a room. Being intentional about your words and focusing on maintaining a positive workplace can go a long way toward professional harmony.

Talk to you next week,

Amber D. Nelson